Surprising findings are based in a not-so-surprising reality for working women
June 1, 2014 12:00 AM
By Brigid Schulte
In her 1997 book, “The Time Bind,” sociologist Arlie Hochschild shook up conventional notions of family life when she argued that work was becoming more like home for many parents, a place of order and belonging where they willingly put in long hours. “I come to work to relax,” one person told her.
Home, Ms. Hochschild said, was becoming more like work, with sullen children, resentful spouses, endless chores, stress and chaos. Ms. Hochschild blew everyone’s mind by arguing that home, that once-sacred haven of rest and renewal, was in fact more stressful for people than work.
And now, researchers have the data to prove she was right.
In a newly released study in the Journal of Science and Medicine, researchers carefully examined the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, of a variety of workers throughout the day. The data clearly showed that both men and women are significantly less stressed out at work than they are at home.
And the women they studied said they were happier at work. The men said they felt happier at home.
“We found a big gender difference,” said Sarah Damaske, a sociologist and women’s studies professor at Penn State and one of the report authors. “Women were much happier at work than at home. And men were only moderately happier at home than at work.”
The results, Ms. Damaske said, are startling. Most people blame work as the source of stress in their lives.
Yet their findings — study subjects took saliva swipes five times a day to measure cortisol levels and wore beepers to report on their moods when contacted by researchers — support earlier research that people who work have better mental and physical health than those who don’t. And mothers who work steadily full-time in their 20s and 30s report better mental and physical health at age 45 than mothers who work part-time, stay home with children or have been unemployed.
“At work, people are potentially completing tasks. They’re able to focus their attention and accomplish things, both those with low and high incomes. They’re not multi-tasking,” she said. “We tend to think that jobs are rewarding if they’re professional, but actually people with lower incomes have more stress reduction at work.”
Those with high incomes, she said, were the only outlier: Both men and women had much higher levels of cortisol at work, and both felt happier at home.
But why do most people feel more stressed at home?
“Well, you just have a lot more going on,” Ms. Damaske said. “Trying to get anything done is a challenge.”
The findings are particularly disturbing. Stress and elevated levels of hormones like cortisol have been associated with high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, inflammation and cancer, to name a few diseases. Previous research has found that cortisol can act like a contagion and spread like a virus through a family. It can even alter the DNA in children.
But before you go off and think that parents, and mothers in particular, are heartless workaholics who prefer endless hours at the office or on the job to the joys of home and hearth, consider this key point: Both men and women were a lot less stressed out on the weekend — when they were home — than on the weekdays.
What does this tell you? It’s not so much that people prefer to be at work rather than at home or with kids. It’s that trying to do both in the same day is stressful. It’s the juggling that’s killing us.
“I don’t think it’s that home is stressful. When you’re home on Saturday, you’re not working. You go to the park, catch up on laundry. The day goes at a slower pace,” Ms. Damaske said. “I think it’s the combination of the two, work and home, that makes home feel so stressful to people during the work week.”
I can relate. Once, when my husband, Tom, a military reporter, was overseas for one of many long stints covering the war in Afghanistan, he sent me a photo of himself in the middle of nowhere. He was sitting outside a metal box, his bunk. He was wearing a bulletproof vest, probably hadn’t showered in days and was beaming.
My reaction shocked me: I was jealous. All he had to do when he woke up, I thought at the time, was go to work. And in my world, I was trying to manage work and kids and home and broken appliances.
Tom said he hears the same from soldiers and Marines he interviews all the time: that in some ways it’s easier to be deployed, doing one thing, no matter how dangerous, than back in the swirl of work and doctor appointments and bills to pay and unpredictable toddlers.
And, although Ms. Damaske said their study findings are counter-intuitive, in some ways, truthfully, they’re entirely predictable. Think about it.
Although gender roles have shifted far enough for women to go to work, they haven’t budged much for men to do more at home. So women not only shoulder about twice the housework and child care, they’re carrying the mental load of planning, organizing and keeping track of it all. So home, really, is just another demanding workplace. And without a fair amount of help, one that can leave you feeling resentful and unappreciated after a long day at work.
“Women are happier at work because at work they are only performing one role,” Nannette Fondas, author of “The Custom Fit Workplace,” who studies the economics and sociology of work, wrote me in an email. “At home, women juggle multiple roles such as housekeeping, parenting and the emotional work of the family. These have been called the second and third shifts by sociologists. Men certainly have begun to take on more of the second shift (child care), but they still do far less than women do. So it makes sense that women would be less stressed at work. Many men may be happier and less stressed at home because, relative to their load of responsibilities at work, the home load is light.”
Liz O’Donnell, who interviewed a host of women for her book “Mogul, Mom & Maid,” said that unrealistic expectations likely play a role in women’s relative unhappiness at home compared to work.
“Women feel pressure to be the kind of mother that is portrayed in media images — on TV shows and in ads — or to be the mother they had growing up. But that’s not a realistic expectation for the modern mother,” she said in an email. “Women today face different pressures and live different lives than the women who came before them. It’s the same for men. There is an expectation that men will perform at work and be the stalwart provider. Maybe men and women are happier in the domain where they face fewer expectations.”
Ms. Damaske and her co-authors argue that the best way to lower stress levels is to make the juggle more manageable. And the best way to do that is to foster creative workplace policies like Results-Only Work Environments, or ROWE, which measure employees by their performance, not by the hours they put in or by when, where or how they work. Research funded by the National Institutes of Health has found ROWE significantly lowers stress levels, improves health, mood, employee commitment and loyalty and has other benefits.
“I know it can feel like we’re stuck, like we’re still in the era of the Organization Man of the 1950s,” Ms. Damaske said. “But the more we learn, the more we listen to people, like millennials, who want to find meaningful work, [who] don’t want to be so devoted to work that they don’t have time for their outside lives, the more we can change.”
For our kids’ sakes if not our own, let’s hope so.
Brigid Schulte’s latest book is “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time.” She wrote this for The Washington Post.